At issue in building collapse: Who knew what, and when?

The June 5 collapse of the Salvation Army store on Market Street killed six and injured 14.
The June 5 collapse of the Salvation Army store on Market Street killed six and injured 14. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: December 02, 2013

For days, the workers at the Salvation Army thrift shop on Market Street said, they heard noises from outside and above.

"Like a giant mouse running down the wall," assistant manager Richard Stasiorowski testified. "Every day, at some point, we would hear something."

"All of us would say, 'Oh, my God,' " manager Margarita Agosto said. " 'Imagine if this falls on us.' "

But they did not alert the demolition crew next door or their Salvation Army supervisor. They said he already knew.

He had to know, Agosto said. He was there one day before the fatal collapse to replace a cash register.

"We was fixing the register, and you could hear the bricks," she testified.

Her boss disputes that. He says no one working there told him they feared for their safety.

The two Salvation Army employees and their boss were interviewed over the summer by federal safety Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigators. Their sworn depositions, obtained by The Inquirer, offer a glimpse of what was happening inside the shop in the days before the June 5 collapse that killed six people and injured 14.

The employees' accounts are painful - and sometimes conflicting.

The Salvation Army's knowledge of and response to the demolition project that triggered the collapse are likely to become critical in the civil lawsuits filed by the victims and their families.

"Because of the noises you would hear . . . this didn't shock any of us that this happened," Stasiorowski testified. "It was just something that was, like a daily thing."

There were "thuds on the roof," he said. "Towards the end, the stuff was heavier that was falling. I remember the sounds getting louder."

Why didn't Stasiorowski report the sounds? "It was something that everybody knew, it was unsafe, and so did our supervisors because Ralph was in that store. Like I said, this was going on for weeks."

He was referring to Ralph Pomponi, supervisor of nine Salvation Army stores from Reading to Atlantic City, who was in the shop June 4.

Agosto said she heard debris fall that day. She said Pomponi's reaction was: "Don't worry, it's OK."

When OSHA lawyers deposed Pomponi in August, however, he said he neither heard the debris nor was told of it. He also said that his responsibilities were primarily sales and personnel, and that building maintenance issues were handled by someone else.

Agosto "said they were doing demolition, but we were aware they were doing something over there," Pomponi testified. "That was it. There was no sense of any kind of urgency or any kind of problem."

Did any employees come to him "and say we have concerns about what's going on next door, something needs to be done to protect our safety?" asked OSHA lawyer Michael P. Doyle. "Nothing at all like that?"

"No," Pomponi said.

Agosto, whom Pomponi had promoted in February to run the store, said she trusted him.

"I believed that he had our safety in his best interest. . . . He was my boss," she testified. "I figured that, you know, our employer, Salvation Army, would have our best interest for us and the customers and let us know, 'Listen, they doing demolition. It's severe. We are going to close the store down and send you to other stores until the demolition is done.' That wasn't the case.' "

The Salvation Army's attorney says the organization had no idea demolition contractors were taking steps that imperiled the store or its occupants.

"Ralph knew they were gutting the building, but at that point, he had no knowledge of any of the structural demolition that was going on" that might destabilize the building as it was taken down, said the lawyer, Eric A. Weiss.

At decision-making levels, Weiss said, the charity thought it was still negotiating with its Market Street neighbor over what steps would be taken to shield the shop during demolition when the collapse occurred.

He said the Salvation Army had designated a Harrisburg lawyer to negotiate with the owner of the building being torn down, STB Investments Corp., a company controlled by real estate investor Richard Basciano.

"We did not know"

On May 29, a lawyer for STB advised the Salvation Army's lawyer of plans to protect the shop's roof with a tarpaulin and plywood, and to complete the demolition with a boom truck that would lift workers alongside the brick wall and allow them to knock debris away from the neighboring thrift shop.

But the truck was never used, and on the weekend of June 1-2, a massive, motorized excavator - "that yellow machine," Stasiorowski called it - went to work on the building next door.

That caught the charity by surprise, its lawyer said.

"If they had told us they were going to rip the building down with a machine like that, the Salvation Army would have done something," Weiss said. "We did not know."

When the four-story brick wall collapsed onto the one-story thrift shop, four customers died and seven were hurt. Two employees died as well - BorBor Davis, a clothes hanger, and Kimberly Finnegan, who had started work at the Center City store that day. "She was going to be my cashier," Agosto testified.

Pomponi said he, too, had planned to visit the store that morning - the cash register was still a problem - but "at the last minute" decided to visit the Reading shop instead.

The six other Market Street shop employees working that day, including Agosto and Stasiorowski, were all injured.

"I remember Margie screaming," Stasiorowski testified. "When I turned around, there was no store."

It could have been even worse, Agosto said. "That happened on Wednesday, one of the busiest days of the Salvation Army, every store," she testified. "Lucky that it didn't fall at noon. There would have been more."

The criminal charges

The third-degree murder charges filed last week against demolition contractor Griffin Campbell allege that he ignored basic safety rules to maximize the salvage value of the building he was tearing down - such as by extracting and selling wooden joists that supported the brick structure. Sean Benschop, who operated the excavator, faces manslaughter charges. OSHA has levied fines totalling $397,000 against the two contractors.

But neither has significant financial resources. In civil suits, the victims' lawyers have targeted two entities with deeper pockets - STB and the Salvation Army. The plaintiffs hope to establish that they knew of the demolition hazards and did too little to protect those in harm's way, putting their financial interests ahead of public safety.

"All it would have taken was the closure of the building until these problems could be rectified, and this tragedy could have been avoided," said Steven Wigrizer, a lawyer for families of two women who were killed. "The Salvation Army employees were afraid, but they still placed a good deal of faith in their employer."

As The Inquirer reported in July, the property manager for STB had warned city officials and the Salvation Army in a series of e-mails that the demolition would endanger the thrift store.

"Evidence from these [OSHA] depositions, as well as the relevant e-mails, clearly show that the Salvation Army was fully aware of the inherent dangers in keeping its store open," said Andrew J. Stern, lawyer for Mariya Plekan, a shop customer who was pulled from the rubble after 13 hours and who lost both legs.

After the collapse

In the tragedy's aftermath, Pomponi told OSHA investigators, he tried to help out.

The injured workers "were kind of in a state of shock, but we were just trying to comfort them," the Roxborough-based Salvation Army manager testified. "You know the administrators - I don't know if you're aware of this or not - are pastors."

Stasiorowski said the last time he heard from Pomponi was a phone call the morning of June 6.

"He asked me how I was doing. I was crying on the phone," he testified. "It was still surreal. I just couldn't believe that it had actually happened."


>Inquirer.com

Go to www.inquirer.com/collapse for more coverage of the Market Street building collapse and its aftermath, including depositions of Richard Stasiorowski and Ralph Pomponi.


 

warnerb@phillynews.com

215-854-5885

 

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